Authors: Darragh McKeon
In memory of my mother
All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.
The Communist Manifesto
To my mind radioactivity is a real disease of matter. Moreover it is a contagious disease. It spreads. You bring those debased and crumbling atoms near others and those too presently catch the trick of swinging themselves out of coherent existence. It is in matter exactly what the decay of our old culture is in society, a loss of traditions and distinctions and assured reactions.
H. G. WELLS
e comes to her daily, slipping into her mind between breaths. She draws him in as she draws in air, pedalling along the Quai de Valmy, as she draws in her new surroundings; the glow of a Paris summer, the jigsaw of shadows thrown across her forearms when she sweeps beneath a canopy of poplars.
She can never say what it is that triggers a recollection, they come into being in such stealthy ways. Perhaps there was something of Grigory in the man with the cigarette at the lock just passed, a familiarity in the way this stranger brought a flaring match to his face. But then the breadth of their marriage contains a corresponding moment for any of the thousands of minute actions that surround her.
His image is lost to her now, belonging solely to the photographs he inhabits. She can no longer see him in resemblance, but only in the motions of others, so that when she chains her bicycle to the railings by the canal and steps toward the café terrace, he is echoed in the man who looks toward her: not through the dark Gallic features, but in the nod of the head, the opening of the long, deft fingers, the downturn of the eyes.
These are the small consolations that death offers. Her husband still turning the key to an undiscovered chamber of her heart.
hen Yevgeni closes his eyes, the world comes in.
The world rattling and banging, whispers and footfalls, the hiss of trains, the bleep and slide of doors, announcements on the P.A. system cracked and frail and distant, people saying “Excuse me,” or, less polite, “Out of my way,” “Move in.” Sound in tides. The train comes, the crowd boards, the train goes, nearer silence now, new people striding down the platform, the train arriving again. Escalators relentlessly creaking, jumping in pitch, constant in rhythm.
A clasp unhooks on a bag, resonating timidly.
He can make out all the individual noises, this is the easy part, a recognition game. But Yevgeni can also block out all associations, can bathe only in pure sound, the patterns it weaves down here. This is the child’s special gift, although he doesn’t know it yet—how can he, nine years old.
Yevgeni’s head is tilted back, he’s standing ramrod straight, arms by his side, an unlikely statue in the centre of the concourse.
He opens his eyes to see a parachute jumper shooting towards him face first, his chute rippling behind him, caught in the last few seconds before the cloth would unfurl hard and taut and the man would be yanked by his shoulders right way up and float silently in the clouds, abandoned to the whims of the wind. Yevgeni can hear this too, block out all the noise around him and listen to the bulging drone of the passing plane, to the darting air currents, the sound of the man’s fall, sound stretched in time and air and speed.
He is in Mayakovskaya station, gazing at the oval mosaics overhead, each one forming a part of the overarching theme: “A Day of the Soviet Sky.” Yevgeni doesn’t know the scenes have a title and it doesn’t matter. He can just stand and look and let imagination fill in the rest. Down here there is no music, only noise, pure sound, the passing plane has no orchestral sweep, the man has no sonata accompanying him to his destiny. Down here Yevgeni is free to put together melodies from all that surrounds him, the tumbling effluvia of daily life. There are no crotchets and quavers down here. There are no staff lines and indicators of volume: forte, pianissimo. There is just sound, in the fullness of its natural expression.
A raw stinging in his ear. A shrill industrial note, the same one the TV makes when programming is finished for the evening.
Yevgeni knows what to expect before he even looks.
Two kids from school, a couple of years older than him. Ivan Egorov and his friend Aleksandr. Everyone calls him Lazy Alek, he has a lazy eye. There are a thousand jokes about Alek.
Why was Alek late for school? His eye wouldn’t get out of bed.
Alek gets this all the time, but not when Ivan is around. Nobody messes with Ivan.
Alek speaks to Ivan. “My mother says why can’t you be like that other boy, play an instrument, like that Tchaikovsky boy. That’s what she calls him, ‘the Tchaikovsky boy.’ ”
“Tchaikovsky. I know that name. Tell me again how I know that name.”
. There’s another one, though, what’s the other one?”
They’re having the conversation for him but not to him, like Yevgeni just happened to sidle along as they were talking. Yevgeni thinks about running, it might be the best way out. But he isn’t afraid to fight. These kids could kick the hell out of him, no question, but he’ll stand and fight. He just wishes they’d get on with it. People wandering by, no idea of Yevgeni’s situation. No way he can ask for help, that would mean an extended beating; other kids would hear about it and join the fun. Not here, but later. Nothing is more certain.
“What other one?”
“The other one.”
“I can’t remember.”
“Hey, Tchaikovsky, what’s the other one you’re famous for?”
A sigh. Here we go.
Ivan fakes a punch to the groin and Yevgeni flinches. Basic mistake.
“I hear you have two mothers. You need a lot of looking after or what? You get a scrape, one blows, one kisses, this is what I hear.”
“One blows? I hear they both blow.”
Alek always has his head tilted to the side, compensating for the eye. It makes him look like a chicken. Flipping his head from one side to the other. Yevgeni wants to slap it back to straight.
“Show us your hands, maestro.” Ivan says this. Ivan once beat a boy four classes ahead of them, no small fry either, a full fight, caught him hard on the windpipe, even the teachers watched it.
Yevgeni clasps his hands against his back and Alek slinks behind, digs into Yevgeni’s wrist, separating the hands, displaying one of them to Ivan. They have to be careful how they handle this: maximum pain, minimum attention.
Ivan grabs the fourth finger of the right hand, cranking it slowly back towards the elbow.
“I hear he wears a bow tie. You hear this?”
“I hear this.”
He moves left, steps tight to one of the arches, using Yevgeni’s body to shield the action. Yevgeni is forced to perform an incremental twist, elbow following shoulder—an agonized version of the twirl he sees his mother do when she dances, the few times he’s seen her dance—until he rounds to face Ivan.
The older boy changes his grip, considers the punishment. Breakage is not out of the question. Yevgeni knows this, Ivan knows this. Testing the flexibility of the joint. Testing the will of Yevgeni.
“So where’s your papa when your two mamas are home?”
“He died in Afghanistan.”
A pause. Ivan looks at him, sees him for the first time.
“My father went to Afghanistan.”
A stabbing note of woe in Ivan’s voice. A glance towards somewhere distant.
Yevgeni may be okay.
It’s just the two of them now. Their joined experience, a father in a war zone, separating them from everything else. Ivan holds the younger kid’s finger. Holding it in his fist. An odd point of contact, he realizes, looking at it, holding the finger in a baby’s grasp.
The Tchaikovsky kid is staring at him, really looking now, like he’s trying to discover something. Like he wants Ivan to repeat what he said. Ivan can feel the tension releasing in the kid’s hand. There is the possibility of letting him go. There is definitely that possibility. But Alek’s here. And word would spread.
He takes in the kid, measuring everything. Fucking pathetic really: sprawly limbs, a body that looks like it was made from spare parts, angled joints, everything at a slant. Ivan’s father taught him to stand square, be grounded. Another lesson to be thankful for. When his father speaks, Ivan listens. A man who went to war.
“There’s a difference, though, between our fathers. Know what it is?”
Calmness glazes Ivan’s eyes. Yevgeni can see his own reflection in them, the vague shape of his hair. The moment turns, irrevocably. He takes a breath, a fleeting image of his tears stored in a small, dark reservoir near his brain. His words create a surface ripple as he speaks.
Ivan grasps Yevgeni’s wrist with his other hand. A fist around his finger, another around his wrist.
“Mine came back.”
Silence. Stillness. A jerk from Ivan, his lower lip clamped between his teeth.
The sound of a branch snapping.
Yevgeni doesn’t cry out and he manages to be proud of this—in the middle of the pain—to let out a sound means they’ll see him again, maybe next week. These are the rules.
A station guard walks up, asks their names. Yevgeni is bent over, hand folded into his stomach, cheeks puffed. The guard repeats his question and they answer him. “Pavel.” “Yuri.” They know better than to give their real names. They look at him blankly: “So what, no problems.” Alek scuffs a shoe on the floor, tugs at his crotch through his pocket. Yevgeni raises the good arm to the man. “I’m fine,” the gesture says.
“He’s got some cramp. We’re just waiting on him.” Ivan says this. Alek hangs back in these situations. This is why Ivan is Ivan and Alek is Alek.
The man walks off. Alek gives Yevgeni a final ear flick, a little bonus pain, and they make for the platform as the train pulls in.
Yevgeni’s tears come as they saunter away, overflowing the lip of the reservoir.
He stumbles forward, away from the arch, breath leaking from him, saliva bubbling down his chin. He wants to go somewhere dark to hide, maybe to sleep, but there’s no place to be alone in this city. Even if he went home and locked himself in the bathroom, there’d be a fist banging on the door. He might get five minutes of peace. Definitely no more than ten. People living in each other’s lives. In his life. Sharing his bath, his toilet. His mother tells him he’s lucky to have his own bed. She says this to him and he doesn’t know what to reply. Maybe his bed will be the next thing. Maybe he’ll have to curl up beside a stranger someday soon. He never knows when the rules will change again.
Yevgeni tucks the wounded hand under his jacket. The pain has its own heartbeat. He cradles the hand inside his jacket like it’s not a part of him, it’s something else, a wounded bird, an abandoned kitten. He feels an urge to let out a whimper, to give voice to the stricken hand, but what if his test isn’t over yet? There’s always someone who might hear.
Mr. Leibniz, his teacher, will be waiting. Yevgeni can see the old man sitting on the piano stool, looking out into the yard, checking his watch.
Maybe he should still go there. Mr. Leibniz would certainly be annoyed, but surely when he sees the finger he’d understand the pain involved, do something about it.
He needs to go somewhere. He knows this. Stand around here much longer and the station guard will come back. Never attract attention. The great rule of this city. Blend in. Walk in a group. Speak quietly. Keep your good fortune to yourself. Queue patiently. These are things that no one has ever said to him, at least not directly. Yevgeni picked them up from simply being here, alive to the quick of his skin.
The city reveals itself to him all the time, slinging its patterns across the most innocuous things. On sunny days, when shadows sit sharp and defined along the ground, he sees people following lines of shade, scuttling along near walls, slinking away from the glare of the light. Or waiting at traffic lights, everyone hunched together, inhabiting a small rectangle of sun-starved concrete. The things he knows, he knows from being alone amongst others. Walking, listening, watching. Last summer he sat on a step and looked at a queue that stretched out in front of a fishmonger’s, everyone sweating and gossiping. And when it was too hot to talk, they stood in silence, breathing. Taking air in and pushing it out together, like they were all part of the same thing, some long, straggled creature. Sometimes he thinks that people stand in line just to be part of a line. To become part of the shapes that are created to fit them.
His mother spends her day working in a laundry and then comes home and washes and irons the neighbours’ clothes. People call round at all hours with baskets of dirty garments. His mother didn’t choose this. He knows she hates it. But someone has to do laundry, to keep clothes clean, keep them free from creases. Why not his mother? Everyone adapting to need.
And still they all want him to play Mozart and Schubert and he can’t help asking himself:
Where’s the need in that?
But he’s too young to ask questions. This is what he’s always told. So he asks them to himself and doesn’t look for an answer. There are questions that float down to him from the mosaics. He has so many questions. He used to write them down but his mother found the sheets in his scrapbook and burned them. She said he had other things to concentrate on. She may as well have kicked him in the stomach. Still the questions keep bubbling in his brain. He straightens and asks himself:
Why did anyone feel the need to put a mosaic of a parachute jumper on the ceiling of a Metro station?
But it somehow feels more fascinating down here. The rush of clouds and sky has an intensity to it, in a place without fresh air, a chandeliered tunnel.
Mr. Leibniz would have plenty of questions. He’d treat Yevgeni like a broken artifact, a precious heirloom that had fallen off the mantelpiece. He wouldn’t be concerned about the pain, at least not at first. He’d think of the weeks of rehearsals that would be missed, the competition schedule that would have to be rearranged. He’d place a hand on his forehead and bring his fingers together by running them across his tufted eyebrows. And then he’d look at Yevgeni with disappointment. Yevgeni hates that look.
People cascade down the escalators again, pour onto the platforms. Someone jostles his hand and Yevgeni lets out a stunted moan and then allows the surge to sweep him up, before finally coming to a stop at the platform’s edge. He stands there and leans gently towards the track to catch a look at the incoming train as it rounds the curve, headlights bulldozing through the darkness.
He’ll go to his aunt Maria. He’s not sure at what point he made this decision, but he’s standing here now and this is what he’ll do.
Around him, people are tweaking their nostrils, chewing their nails, tugging at their earlobes. All of them looking into nothing.
The train pulls in, and as it stops the woman beside him bares her teeth to the steel panels of the doorframe. She’s checking for lipstick marks. Yevgeni knows this because his mother does the same thing fifteen times a day, even if she’s at home for the evening, even if she isn’t wearing lipstick. She looks and asks him to check for stains and then unconsciously runs her tongue over the front row, because just in case. The doors open and the crowd surges and squeezes. Yevgeni hunches over, protecting his finger with his elbows and shoulders. He stands, waiting for the shunt when the train moves forward. He can’t use his free hand to grasp one of the hanging straps, it would leave him too exposed, so he spreads his legs wide, lets them soak up the movement of the carriage.
He may be nine years old, but he’s ridden the Metro on his own countless times. It’s been at least a year since he convinced his mother to allow him to travel alone. He goes to Mr. Leibniz’s four times a week and waiting for his aunt or his mother to pick him up and bring him there was cutting into his rehearsal time. Yevgeni knew that if he could relate his argument to music, he was on strong ground. He got Mr. Leibniz to agree with this, in front of his mother, which took some doing, because Mr. Leibniz didn’t like agreeing with him on anything. He didn’t want Yevgeni getting ahead of himself.